Last weekend I had my first trip to one of the rural areas of Japan. My host and Itook the Shinkansen (bullet train) north to Yamagata Pref. The Shinkansen, one of the fastest train systems in the world, is a pleasure to ride. It goes about 300 km per hour, or nearly 200mph, so you get where you are going very fast. Not only that, they serve beer. Ahhhh Japan.....
Anyway, we spent the night in the city Yamagata, and then in the morning, after a breakfast of onigiri and miso soup, met members of the Tochukaso Circle, or Amateur Cordyceps Group. Japan is a very fungus loving culture, and this group is an extreme example of that. The members of the group that we met we locals of the area, which is crucial from my perspective, since my nascent Japanese language skills only allow me to do things like order food and exchange pleasantries. Couple this with the fact that the people living in the area speak a unique dialect and I would be hard pressed to find my way into the remote parts of the mountains alone. The degree of separation from Japanese spoken there, versus that spoken in the Tokyo area is beyond that existing between, say, Maine and Florida. In fact Hosoya-san, my host, could only make out about 80% of what some of the people were saying.
The ride into the mountains took us through some agricultural fields, the majority of which consist of rice paddies, although there is also a lot of forage crop, grown to feed the cattle for which the area is famous. They also produce a lot of cherries. I bought some of them and they were good, but fresh fruit is a commodity in short supply, due the low amount of land available for agriculture. I paid 1000 yen, which translates to about 10 bucks. The cherries were good, especially because it had in fact been awhile since I had enjoyed any fresh fruit, but they're a far cry from what they grow in Oregon (sigh...).
I've been out collecting my fungi in the states before. Over a two week period, visiting five states, my labmate and I were able to collect about 200 individual specimens, representing 17 or so species. I felt ok about those kind of numbers, since the conditions had not been totally conducive for the growth of the fungi. To say that things are different here, would be an understatement of profound proportions. In the span of about four hours, 10 people were able to locate 244 individual specimens, representing 24 species. When I heard those numbers, my jaw dropped and I wondered if perhaps I had chosen the wrong profession. Maybe I should go into accounting or something. However, I shouldn't be so hard on myself, since the leader of the group has been scouring the forests in search of these things for over 40 years.
That night we were treated to a fantastic spread of food. Many new things to try, including some wild foods, like fiddle head ferns and mizo, which is a plant that tastes a little like celery (incidentally, you should ask a Japanese person to say "celery" some time. The "l" and "r" sounds are combined in this language so it comes out sounding like "cerlerly". Pretty funny really. Anyway...)
In addition to the wonderful food, I also had the most interesting culinary item since arriving. Sake is a drink that is sometimes served warm, this is no surprise to most of you. However, my new friends in Yamagata have developed a new twist on this. While heating the sake, they put fish in the kettle. The result is a drink where the evaporating alcohol hits your nose first, with a pungent fishy odor hot on its heals. It seems to me a bit like drinking the water that you drain off of canned tuna, or maybe sardines. I wouldn't say you should refuse it if ever offered such a concoction, it wasn't bad. But maybe this is one trend from Japan that should stay in Japan.
The following morning, was another introduction to new foods. Tripe stew. Tripe is a very tender meat, but not exactly what you want to have first thing in the morning, especially after a night spent slurping fishy sake. However, everything was set right upon leaving, since we stopped at one of the local onsen. Since Japan is on a pretty active subducting plate boundry, there are a multitude of hotsprings sprinkled throughout the mountains. Onsen are hotsprings that have been built up a little bit to form tubs and such. The perfect thing for a body tired of stooping through the brush and negotiating poison ivy (will I ever be free from this scourge of a plant?) and steep slopes looking for tiny fungi.